This is a first! An author interview with Su Sokol, an author hailing from my very own city of Montreal. It’s always great to meet new authors, but I have to say connecting with a local writer carries a little something special. I quite enjoyed discovering today’s guest–an activist, lawyer and writer with a warm personality and gift for communicating–I’m sure you will enjoying meeting her as well.
So without further delay, please pull up a seat and make yourself comfortable. It’s time to welcome our guest!
Hello, Su! Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I am originally from Brooklyn, and like the family in my novel, my own family immigrated to Montréal largely for political reasons. Happily though, unlike that fictional family, it was not because our lives were in danger. In New York, I worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer. I do similar work now in Montréal as a social rights advocate, only I don’t have to go to court and I get to speak French as well as English. I love cycling, cooking, books, red wine and dark chocolate.
Oh, you had me at red wine and chocolate!
Are you interested in other forms of artistic expression besides writing? Why are you drawn to writing?
I also love music and have sung in a number of choral groups. I’ve played piano, cello, and most recently, I learned to play the glockenspiel for an anarchist marching band. I also enjoy visual art, theatre and dance, cooking, and gardening. Yet, aside from music, there is no artistic expression that has come close to moving me as much as writing. With words and stories, new worlds can be imagined, populated by characters, events, places, and emotions, and all this can grab hold of your heart and mind and refuse to let go.
Wonderfully put. Such is the magic of storytelling.
What draws you to novel writing? Do you write in other formats? What can you never see yourself writing?
What draws me to novel writing is that you can take your characters the furthest, exploring their depths and complexities, as well as their relations with others. It is not impossible to do this in shorter fiction, but it is more difficult. I love to imagine my characters in a variety of situations, watch them react, and especially, I love to listen to them talk to each other. With a novel, you have more time and space to do this.
I have also written short fiction, but prefer writing (and reading) longer short stories where the characters can be fully developed and there can be more of a plot. I have written four short stories: two have been published, one is on submission, and the other I am in the process of turning into a new novel. I have also written a little creative non-fiction. There is really nothing that I couldn’t see myself writing, but poetry is probably the least natural for me. Of course, I have only been doing serious creative writing for a relatively short amount of time. I wrote a great deal as a lawyer, but although my adversaries might insist otherwise, none of that was fiction.
Oho! That was clever!
As a reader, what do you think makes a good story? What’s one thing a ‘bad’ book taught you to not do in your own writing?
For me, what makes a good story are characters that are compelling. If I don’t care what happens to the characters, it is hard for me to get into the story. Another important element is that the story say something new or in a new way. I can’t think of a particular bad book that taught me what not to do, but in general, the things that I don’t like are stories where I don’t care how they end, stories where I am constantly reminded that there is an author because the author is trying to impress me or convince me of something, and stories that I find offensive, boring, or trite.
What elements do you find are the most crucial to include in your stories? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I think my strengths are character development and dialogue. I have also been told that my writing is smooth and rhythmic and tends to read well and easily. In addition, I find I have something to say and can sometimes manage to say it with a satisfying intensity. My weaknesses include a tendency to say too much, to use too many words, to “overwrite.” That last sentence is a good example. I also have a weakness for heroic characters and sentimentality, and I can’t resist a good wrap-up where leaving a few loose ends might be more true to life.
In my view, the grand purpose of writing is to communicate something, so I find it critical that my story contain at least one important message or idea, but usually it contains a number of them. I don’t mean that writing should be preachy, but rather, that it should demonstrate an interesting idea in all its moral and human complexity.
What draws you to your preferred genre?
Genre is the bane of my existence as a writer. I refer to my writing as “interstitial,” which some would claim is just another way of saying that I cross genres or defy traditional genre borders. This leads to challenges in describing my writing, in finding appropriate markets for my work, and in being secure in identifying my community of readers. For example, science fiction markets consider my writing to be literary rather than SF whereas literary markets often consider it to be too genre. I find that human beings have a tendency to oversimplify, to fit everything into a binary. This is understandable because it is an easier way to organize information about the world, but it is less accurate, and I would also argue, less interesting. On the other hand, I think people are beginning to move away from this and one consequence is that “interstitial” art, including writing, is becoming more and more popular.
Cycling to Asylum is a story about a family living in the near-future who are forced to flee a New York City which is somewhat dystopic. They cross the border into Québec by bicycle and apply for political asylum. One interesting thing about the book is that it is written from the first person, present tense perspective of four main characters, two of whom are children, so the reader gets to hear different voices and perspectives. The story itself also has many different elements: it’s a story about activism, it’s a family drama, it’s a cycling adventure, it’s speculative fiction with dystopic and utopic elements, it’s a story about friendship, and it’s an outside-of-the-box love story. At its base, Cycling to Asylum is about crossing borders on many different levels.
Sounds fascinating! The story elements cross so many interesting points, and I think it’s wonderful that our Belle Province (Québec) features as the story’s backdrop.
I am currently writing a new novel about mental illness and whether it is possible to reject the categories and limits placed on love (so another exploration of boundaries.) I will keep the genre a secret for now.
Did you choose a traditional publisher or self-publish? Do you have advice for anyone taking that route?
I managed to do neither of the above. I am being published by a non-traditional publisher called Deux Voiliers Publishers. Their aim is to find and promote first-time Canadian authors with promise. They are moving towards a collective model, but have a competitive submissions process.
My advice for others is to find a good fit. For me, DVP was a good fit in a number of ways. They are a local (Québec) publisher focused on Canadian first-time novelists, they publish a diversity of styles and genres but have a particular interest in international stories, and their non-profit, semi-collective model is appealing to someone with my values. Whether someone finds a big publisher, a small publisher, a non-traditional publisher, or self-publishers, it is important to be comfortable with that decision and understand what it entails. Each decision comes with its limitations and its opportunities.
What do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you cope with it?
There are a number of difficult aspects. One is finding enough time to write while leaving enough time and focus for the rest of my life. Another is figuring out the proper balance between caring what others think and doing what I think is right. This is a tough one because I want so much for others to appreciate my writing but of course not everyone will. Another thing that is hard for me is patience. The ways that I cope with these difficulties is by trusting in the process, by trying to be disciplined, and by having the wonderful, solid support of my family and my writer and non-writer friends. Also, when things are difficult, I try to focus on how much I love writing and how lucky I am to be able to engage this love.
I think most writers struggle with these issues. Your methods of coping are encouraging in that they are simple and things everyone can put into practice.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
My favourite writer for many years has been Ursula K. LeGuin. Her books are at home on the science fiction shelves as well as with the literary fiction selections. Her writing is infused with her values and this enhances rather than gets in the way of an engaging story, realistic characters, and beautiful prose. She is a SF writer with a social as well as a technological imagination. Reading her books is a pure pleasure. I like a lot of authors and read a variety of genres (and non-genres). Other long-time favourites include William Gibson, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, and Cory Doctorow.
What advice would you give to new writers, especially those looking to break into your genre?
Don’t write unless you love it and do it because you love it, not to get published. Find yourself a community—a writers’ organization, writers’ groups, workshops, friends who like to write, whatever works. Then try to give as much as you get, be open to feedback and change, don’t ever stop learning, and keep trying new things, even if they are scary.
Great reminders that, more than any other reason, we should write because we love to. And, because of that love, we should commit ourselves to constantly improving.
How can readers get into contact with you?
Visit my website at sujsokol.com.
Follow me on twitter @sujsokol.
Find me on my publisher’s website at http://www.deuxvoilierspublishing.com.
Readers can also buy my book in paper or e-book versions. Click here to see all of the options: http://www.deuxvoilierspublishing.com/#!cycling-to-asylum/c1lsc
You can also find my short fiction here: http://futurefire.net/2012.24/fiction/jemesouviens.html and here: http://store.sparkanthology.org/products/volume-iv
Or on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Spark-Creative-Anthology-Volume-IV/dp/0988807297
I would love to hear from readers! And thanks for this opportunity to talk about writing!
Su, it has been a pleasure getting to know you. I found your advice on writing and its process very helpful, and your books sound intriguing. Thanks so much for spending time with us today. Readers, I hope you also enjoyed meeting our guest. I encourage you to leave a message below and to connect with Su via the links provided. Thanks so much for stopping by!